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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Chet Walker, NBA champion and movie producer, dies at 84



Chet Walker with the Chicago Bulls in 1975 (Wikipedia)

By Harvey Araton


Chet Walker, one of the NBA’s most understated stars of its developmental decades, who was a vital member of the 1966-67 champion Philadelphia 76ers and who later became an Emmy Award-winning movie producer, died Saturday in Long Beach, California. He was 84.


The NBA confirmed the death, saying it came after a long illness.


Walker, who played in seven All-Star Games during a 13-year professional career, was a starting forward on the 76ers’ title team, which won 68 regular-season games and broke the Boston Celtics’ championship stranglehold.


On a team often included in discussions of the NBA’s greatest, Walker was the third-leading scorer, averaging 19.3 points per game and 8.1 rebounds, while fitting seamlessly with future and fellow Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham.


Walker, a 6-foot-7 forward, was known for pump-faking defenders into a vulnerable position for his patented jump shots and drives along the baseline, where, he calculated, it was difficult to double-team him.


A prideful but publicly modest man, Walker asked Cunningham, one of his presenters at his 2012 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony, to speak of his career exploits.


“He was slow — you were slow, Chet — but you just couldn’t stop the man,” Cunningham said. “He just took you to the spot on the court, faked you, went up over you, took it to the hole, or someone was open and he’d find the open man.”


In 1969, the season after the 76ers broke up their championship team by sending Chamberlain to the Los Angeles Lakers, Walker was traded to the Chicago Bulls under unusual circumstances.


When Pat Williams, the 76ers’ business manager, was offered the Bulls’ general manager’s position, Jack Ramsay, the 76ers’ coach and general manager, told him he would be released from the two years remaining on his contract on one condition: that Williams agree to take Walker with him to Chicago in a multiplayer trade that included Bulls forward Jim Washington’s going to Philadelphia.


“Jack had developed this thing for Washington, thought he’d be a better fit with Billy C. than Chet,” Williams said in an interview for this obituary in 2022. “Of course we wanted to make that trade. Chet was a great player but when you’ve been on the floor with Wilt, Greer and Billy C., you’re going to sacrifice.”


In Chicago, Walker was a focal point of a Bulls unit that featured forward Bob Love and guards Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan. He began a six-year run with the Bulls by averaging more than 20 points his first three seasons. In February 1972, he scored a career-high 56 points against the Cincinnati Royals — a team record that lasted until Michael Jordan scored 57 points in February 1987.


More significant, Williams said, was Walker’s contribution to establishing Chicago as a viable city for professional basketball. “The sport hadn’t made it in Chicago going back decades and they were again looking to move the team,” he said. “But when Chet got there, everything changed.”


Within two seasons, the Bulls’ regular-season victory total grew to 51 from 33, and the team, known for its rugged style, roughly tripled its average home attendance. But they typically fell short in the playoffs, most conspicuously failing to close out the Golden State Warriors after taking a 3-2 series lead in the 1975 Western Conference final.


Walker scored just 10 points in Game 6, though, and he was hospitalized after the Bulls lost Game 7 in Oakland, California, with the recurrence of a kidney infection that would later cause scarring and require ongoing medication.


In the 2022 interview, Williams said he still regularly heard from Walker, adding: “One thing that eats at him is why the Bulls never retired his number, 25. He’ll say, ‘You and I helped save basketball in Chicago.’ And they did retire Bob Love’s number and Jerry Sloan’s, so why wouldn’t they retire Chet’s?”


Chester Walker was born Feb. 22, 1940, in Bethlehem, Mississippi, the youngest of John and Regenia Walker’s 10 children. His family owned a small cotton farm, on which Walker worked until his mother, after losing a daughter in 1950 to tuberculosis and suffering from her husband’s physical abuse, moved with her youngest children to Benton Harbor, Michigan.


Experiencing integration for the first time, Walker starred at Benton Harbor High School and earned a scholarship to Bradley University, where he was a two-time consensus All-American, averaging 24.4 points and 12.8 rebounds over three seasons. Nicknamed “Chet the Jet,” he was drafted by the Syracuse Nationals in the second round, made the NBA’s All-Rookie team and moved to Philadelphia with the franchise in 1963. He finished with career averages of 18.2 points and 7.1 rebounds.


Information on Walker’s survivors was not immediately available.


Walker’s mentor in the film industry and connection to Hollywood was producer Zev Braun, a neighbor in Chicago. Braun was executive producer of Walker’s debut 1979 production, “Freedom Road,” a television miniseries about a former slave who rose to the U.S. Senate during Reconstruction. The series, based on a 1944 novel by Howard Fast, starred Muhammad Ali and Kris Kristofferson.


Walker’s 1989 television series, “A Mother’s Courage,” co-produced with Richard L. O’Connor, won an Emmy in the outstanding children’s program category. Starring Alfre Woodard, it was based on the life of Mary Thomas, a single mother who fought to protect her nine children on Chicago’s impoverished West Side and whose youngest, Isiah, became one of the NBA’s most prolific point guards.


“It’s a difficult transition from the athletic to the so-called normal world,” Walker told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “There’s an image that goes along with being an athlete, an image of not being intelligent, of being a dumb jock. Not dependable. It follows you out into the world. You have to prove yourself all over again.”



NBA Finals

Wednesday

Game 3 (Boston leads series 2-0)

Boston Celtics at Dallas Mavericks,

8:30 p.m. ET (ABC)

Sunday’s Game 2

Celtics 105, Mavericks 98

Thursday’s Game 1

Celtics 107, Mavericks 89

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